Palm’s latest WebOS smartphone, the sprightly Pixi, is a slimmed-down version of the Palm Pre ( ) in both specs and design. The Pixi lacks Wi-Fi, it has a smaller screen with a lower resolution, and its camera is only a 2-megapixel version. Luckily, the Pixi retains a lot of what we love about the Pre, particularly the features in WebOS. Unfortunately, in our tests the Pixi was sluggish in certain instances, and Palm’s signature keyboard design desperately needs rethinking.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Pixi is how light it is. In fact, when I first picked it up, I had to check whether it had the battery installed. Weighing a scant 3.3 ounces, the Pixi feels really nice in the hand thanks to its rubberized back and slim body. It’s also super-pocketable, measuring 2.2 by 4.4 by 0.4 inches.
Keyboard aside, the Pixi is fairly minimalist when it comes to hardware buttons. At the top of the phone sits the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, as well as the power button. The left spine houses the ringer switch (to turn notification and ringer sounds on or off), the volume rocker, and the mini-USB port, while the right edge is bare.
Rather than a single hardware button to close apps, the handset offers a touch area with a light-up bar; you simply tap it to close an app. If you’re used to the Pre, at first you might be a little thrown off by the lack of a button, but you’ll get used to it quickly. The Pixi supports the same gestures for scrolling, paging, going back (a backward swipe), and pinch and zoom as the Pre does.
Although it is narrower, the Pixi’s keyboard is easier to use than the Pre’s. Yes, it feels a bit cramped, but it doesn’t have the flimsy, unstable feel of the Pre’s slide-out keyboard. It also doesn’t have the same sharp, cheese-slicing edges as the Pre does. While the spacebar is small, it’s centrally placed, and the keys are nicely backlit.
Unfortunately, a few of the issues I experienced with the Pre remained problems on the Pixi: I had to use my nails to type on the small, gummy keys, and I made a few errors in long messages. I really wish that Palm had revised the keyboard design for a phone that’s marketed toward heavy messagers—these keys just don’t cut it. That said, I did find the Pixi’s keys a bit firmer than the Pre’s, and they were a little easier to use.
The 2.6-inch, 320-by-400-pixel display, which takes up about half of the phone’s face, is large enough for typing long e-mail and text messages, and it showcases WebOS quite nicely. Though the display isn’t as brilliant as the Pre’s 3.1-inch, 320-by-480-pixel screen, colors appeared accurate and details were sharp.
As with the Pre, on the Pixi you’re limited to only 8GB of nonexpandable memory; currently neither the Pixi nor the Pre comes in a 16GB model. The Pixi’s battery is the same as the Pre’s, according to Palm. While it is nice that you can swap batteries between the two phones, the Pixi’s battery life might not be so hot—the Pre’s battery life was pretty dismal when we last reviewed it. Palm says that the Pixi can last for 5 hours of talk time and 350 hours of standby time. If you have multiple applications running at once (and undoubtedly you will), the battery will drain even faster.
Call quality over Sprint’s 3G network was very good overall. Parties on the other end of the line said that my voice had ample volume and sounded very clear, even when I was on a busy San Francisco street corner. None of my calls dropped, and I didn’t hear any static, nor did my contacts.
We covered the specifics of WebOS extensively in our review of the Pre, so here I’ll focus mostly on what’s new in the operating system. Out of the box, the Pixi runs version 1.2.9, but when you start it up, you’ll be updated over the air to 1.3.1. New features in this update include the ability to forward a text message, as well as to copy and paste from your browser (before you could copy only from editable fields).
The most important component of WebOS is its ability to synchronize your personal information from your various accounts into a single view. For example, you can view conversations from Google’s GTalk, AOL Instant Messager, and SMS all in the Messaging application. Palm calls this concept “Synergy”; we’ve seen similar features in Motorola’s MotoBlur user interface on the Cliq ( ). With the Pixi, Palm has thrown Yahoo integration into the mix, so you can now add your Yahoo calendar and IM to the Calendar and Messaging apps, respectively. And users now get to enjoy a stand-alone Facebook application for WebOS, preloaded on the Pixi.
One of WebOS’s best features is how it manages multitasking with a deck-of-cards visualization: You can view each of your open applications at once, shuffle them any way you choose, and then discard the ones you want to close. Though Palm says that the Pre and the Pixi are no different in terms of multitasking performance, I put the Pixi to the test anyway.
I opened 11 applications, including the music player, e-mail, Google Maps, YouTube, and a couple of third-party apps. While the Pixi could handle all of these open apps without crashing, I noticed some lag when I launched videos in YouTube or browsed through categories in the App Store. Launching native programs like Device Information took some time, too. And when I tried to close certain apps by flicking them, some of the cards seemed to linger in midair; they remained half visible on the screen before they completely disappeared. I was impressed, however, with the speed in which small apps downloaded from the App Store, even while the Pixi was running all of those other apps.
The Pixi’s full HTML Web browser renders pages beautifully. You can have as many browser windows open as you want (you’re limited only by the available memory), and you can save pages for offline viewing. Again, the Pixi lacks Wi-Fi connectivity, so you’re at the mercy of Sprint’s 3G network for loading pages; in my hands-on tests, I found that the Pixi took quite a bit of time to fully load media-heavy pages like PCWorld.com or CNN.com. Because the Pixi is multitouch, you can pinch to zoom in to a page’s detail. You can also view a page in landscape view, thanks to the Pixi’s speedy accelerometer.
The Pixi’s 2-megapixel camera is straightforward, with no frills or extra features. It has an automatic LED flash, but no digital zoom. While it offers automatic controls for white balance and exposure, it has no manual controls or advanced settings. When I tried the camera, it snapped decent pictures, though colors were somewhat washed out in some of my shots. And since the Pixi lacks a dedicated shutter button, you have to press an on-screen button, which sometimes resulted in blurry photos. The Pixi also doesn’t have video recording, a capability that the second-generation iPhone lacks as well.
The media player is standard: You can view your music library (by artist, album, songs, or genre), see album art, and create playlists. And, of course, you can run the music app in the background. The Pixi supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, WAV, QCELP, and AMR files. Pixi users have access to Amazon’s Mobile Music Store for DRM-free tracks. Music through the included earbuds sounded clear with no noise or static, but it lacked bass.
Video playback, for the most part, was quite smooth, with no buffering or pixelation. The 2.6-inch screen was comfortable for watching short clips on YouTube; anything longer, however, was headache-inducing. The Pixi also comes loaded with the Sprint TV application, but those videos tended to stutter a bit and looked slightly blurry.
Five backs designed by California artists are available for the Pixi. Often, when trying to target younger audiences, companies take the abysmal glitter and bad-tattoo-inspired design route. Thankfully, these backs are slick, and they work with the Touchstone inductive charger (sold separately for $70).
The Palm Pixi joins Verizon’s HTC Droid Eris ( ) and AT&T’s Apple iPhone 3G ( ) in the sub-$100 category. Out of the three, the Pixi is the only one that sports a full QWERTY keyboard, but it also has the smallest screen. If you plan on using your phone mostly for messaging and social networking, the Pixi is definitely for you. If you’re more into gaming and watching videos, however, you’ll want to opt for something else.
[Ginny Mies is an assistant editor for PC World.]